The history, meaning, allure and reality of this shapeshifter, the werewolf
MOST OF US are only aware of the werewolf through films, TV shows and perhaps novels, but the tradition of the werewolf reaches back into prehistory, and similar creatures are found in cultures around the world. Why does the werewolf resonate so profoundly with us? We spoke with Dr. Bob Curran, author of Werewolves: A Field Guide to Shapeshifters, Lycanthropes, and Man-Beasts, a brilliant and fascinating look at these creatures and the meaning they have held for humankind through the ages.
Q: How far back have you been able to trace werewolf lore?
Curran: I think that the idea of a werewolf -- the man-wolf -- can be traced very far back into the mists of pre-history. Our earliest hunter ancestors often competed with the wolf for food, especially when the ground was hard and the game scarce. The wolf, of course, is a perfect hunting and killing machine -- it is strong, swift and highly intelligent. Like men, it also lives largely in communities -- wolf packs -- and has a very strict social order. It may also have been a much more successful hunter than our lumbering hominid ancestors.
Therefore, early man may have feared but also admired the wolf, and may have wished that they were more like it. They may have thought that by donning wolf skins and pelts and by pretending to be wolves, they might acquire some of the creature's skills and abilities. We know this because of a cave drawing found on the wall of an underground chamber in the Montesquieu-Avantes region of the Pyrenees Mountains, which is referred to as "Le Sorcier des Trois Freres" (from the Trois Freres area) and which depicts a curious hybrid creature, half man, half wolf, which appears to be dancing on its hind legs. This is probably a shaman, invoking a wolf spirit for the purposes of hunting, and suggests that early men thought they could call down wolf spirits in order to possess them. The name for such a figure, as coined by the French anthropologist Henri Breuil (1877-1961), is "therianthrope." It's an idealised figure combining both human and animal characteristics, but probably serves as an idea for the first primitive werewolves.
The first written account in Western Europe is to be found in the works of a medieval monk, Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), writing in 1185 in his book A History and Topography of Ireland. In it he records, as fact, an old legend that he may have heard at the courts of his Irish kinsmen, the Fitzgeralds, concerning the Werewolves of Ossory. In this story, a priest, travelling on ecclesiastical business along the borders of Meath in the diocese of Ossory, camps for the night in a forest. There he is approached by a talking wolf, who asks him a religious favour. He and his wife are members of Clan Altan, a clan which was cursed by an irascible holy man, St. Nechtan. Under the terms of the curse, two of the clan members are turned into the shape of wolves for a period of seven years. They then return from the forest and two others take their place. Whilst serving this penance, his wife, in wolf form, has been struck by a huntsman's arrow and is near to death. He asks the priest if he will come and give her the Holy Offices of the Church so that she may die as a Christian. This the priest does, and the wolf guides him to the edge of the forest and directs him where he has to go. The monk promises to return once his business in Meath is complete, but here the story ends and we don't know if he does. To the best of my knowledge, this is the oldest written werewolf tale, but the oral tradition goes back much further than this.
Q: Is the werewolf tradition cross-cultural? Global?
Curran: The idea of changing into another form -- that of an animal -- is to be found in many cultures and probably dates back to a time when men were little more than animals themselves and serves to emphasise that connection. However, it is not only a wolf that men can transform themselves into, for other animals were also admired. One of these was the bear, and in Scandinavia we find many stories about were-bears. For example, in Norway and Denmark, there are tales of warriors who donned bear-shirts -- baar-sark -- in order to increase their prowess and ferocity in battle. This is where we get the words "berserk" and "berserker." There were brigades of these warriors, some of whom fought for the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair during the unification of the country in the 9th and 10th centuries.
However, many cultures seem to believe that the transformation occurs into a dog-like creature, although not necessarily a wolf. For instance in the Middle East, the emphasis seems to be on the transformation into creatures like jackals and hyenas. Native American cultures suggest transformation into a coyote or something similar. Japanese culture has a tradition of were-foxes, which are thought to be highly intelligent but great tricksters. So transformation, often into a wolf-like creature, is to be found in a great number of cultures all across the world.
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